In search of a midnight kiss

midnight kiss

In Search of a Midnight Kiss began life as writer-director Alex Holdridge’s revenge on Hollywood, and has ended up as one of the most original romantic comedies of recent years. Like his central character, Holdridge moved to LA in search of fame and fortune, flipped his car on the way — the photograph of the wreck in the movie is genuine — and spent several years wrestling with the studio system before deciding instead to make his own film on his own terms.

The premise is simple: can depressive, failing screenwriter Wilson (co-producer Scoot McNairy) secure himself a date on New Year’s Eve? Under pressure from his best friends Jacob and Min, Wilson puts up an ad on Craig’s List — “Misanthrope Seeks Same” — and is soon summoned to an LA cafe to meet Vivian (Sara Simmonds), a wilful, seemingly self-confident blonde with a penchant for dry put-downs and huge sunglasses. The film then follows their adventures as the hours count down towards that elusive midnight kiss. 

The film isn’t Holdridge’s first, but it’s certainly his breakthrough. It’s fresh, funny and freewheeling, with an easy chemistry between the characters, most of whom are played by the director’s real-life friends and co-workers: there’s a particularly funny cameo by the film’s cinematographer, Robert Murphy, as Vivian’s possessive, dangerous ex-boyfriend. But there’s a real tenderness here too. At a time when so much US independent cinema sets out to be cool, ironic and self-conscious, In Search of a Midnight Kiss is warm and melancholy, more concerned with longing than with satisfaction: the search for happiness, it implies, is an ongoing one, whether in or outside a relationship. 

It’s also outstandingly beautiful. Shot in black and white, and filmed largely on location in downtown Los Angeles, the look of the film immediately recalls Manhattan. But the shooting style is a reminder of an even earlier era, its strong, simple compositions closer to the work of Howard Hawks or Preston Sturges. As Holdridge explained at this week’s Curzon screening, this was a deliberate strategy to give the film some of the tone of classic Hollywood romantic comedies, despite its explicit humour — there’s a Photoshop scene that’s sure to be ripped off for years to come — and digital video aesthetic. 

In Search of a Midnight Kiss isn’t perfect: the character development feels too abrupt in places, and there’s a plot twist later in the film that feels far too soapy for the tone of the movie. It also feels too much a male movie: as so often in contemporary comedy the men get off more lightly than the women. But Holdridge has a warmth, intelligence and likeability, both in his film and speaking to an audience, that’s rare and welcome, and makes Midnight Kiss a promise of terrific work to come. 


Acting and Reality

Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday is one of the great screwball comedies, full of smart one-liners, snappy put-downs and mistaken identities. But one moment that particularly stands out is when Walter Burns (Cary Grant) is briefing the police to look out for his ex-wife’s fiancee Bruce Baldwin. “He looks like the actor Ralph Bellamy,” he says. This is, of course, hardly surprising — because Baldwin is played by the actor Ralph Bellamy. 

While they certainly play with the unspoken rules of film-viewing, such in-jokes are generally in comedies, where we’re less required to believe what we’re watching. There’s not a lot of post-modern cheekiness in There Will Be Blood. But they do raise the issue of reality in performance; and of whether too much reality can actually break the spell. David Mamet, in Bambi vs Godzilla, discusses the role of musicians in the movies. In the old days, he points out, when a character in a film played the piano, you showed him sitting at the piano; then his face, looking soulful as he played; then perhaps some hands at the keyboard. What you very rarely saw was any concrete proof that the actor was actually playing the piano, because he very rarely could. Today, on the other hand, a great deal is made of showing the actor actually playing the instrument, or singing his own songs. But does this really add to the credibility of the character? Mamet argues that it doesn’t; that it more often breaks the movie’s spell by making us think “oh, look, XYZ can play the piano”. It is, in other words, an act of vanity on behalf of the actor that actually undermines the story that it’s trying to tell. 

Another example of this in contemporary Hollywood is the insistence that an actor “did all his own stunts”. Now: is this to the benefit of the movie, or the benefit of the actor? If the former, all well and good, but it’s hard not to think that it’s more often the latter. Think of the opening shot of Mission: Impossible 2, which goes to enormous lengths to prove that “Ethan Hunt” is really hanging off a cliff face in the Outback, but in doing so serves only as an advertisement for Tom Cruise. More complicated, because so artistically well intentioned, are the ordeals that Christian Bale endured for Werner Herzog in making Rescue Dawn. In this film, which feels like an almost-sequel to his breakthrough picture Empire of the Sun, Bale plays a German-American pilot shot down over Laos and then tortured and imprisoned in terrible surroundings. In classic Herzog style, as much of the story as possible was filmed for real, with the actors scarily underweight and Bale tucking into writhing maggots with apparent hunger. But does this add to the credibility of the story, or have the oppposite effect? In an Indiana Jones movie, we can laugh and squirm when actors eat chilled monkey brains, knowing that they’re a Hollywood prop, and it doesn’t break the story. But Herzog’s determination to prove the reality of what Bale is doing has the opposite effect: “Wow!” we think, “Christian Bale is eating maggots!”. Movies, to misquote T.S.Eliot, cannot bear very much reality.